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Family, safety top concerns for voters at Ocoee District 4 candidates forum 

Robertson landed jabs for Oliver's “abandoning” voters while the former commissioner pledged he was unequivocally committed to Ocoee. 


Candidates Forum
Nate Robertson (left) and George Oliver III answer questions on family issues, public safety, police funding and other topics, during the Woman's Club of Ocoee candidates forum March 6, 2024, at Ocoee City Hall. Photo: Norine Dworkin/VoxPopuli


Candidates in Ocoee’s District 4 special election, Nate Robertson and former Commissioner George Oliver III, met March 6 at City Hall for a candidates forum to make their case for why they would be the best steward for the district for the remaining year of the term. 


Oliver vacated the District 4 seat last year, halfway through his term, to run unsuccessfully for mayor — a fact that Robertson sought to remind voters about throughout the evening. Pharmacist and pastor Ages Hart has served as interim commissioner since April.


The forum was hosted by the Woman’s Club of Ocoee, which has produced these events for Ocoee voters for 30-plus years. About 25 people attended, said Cathy Sills, who chaired the forum. Televised and streamed, the forum was moderated by Gail Daniels while Trish Forges and Chestina Black handled the questions, which covered a range of issues from public safety, property taxes and downtown development to increasing funding for the police department and expanding the city's Community Redevelopment Area. Viewers could send questions by email and phone while a panel ensured the questions weren’t duplicated or personal. “Runners” in the commission chambers picked up questions from attendees during the forum. 


Voting for the March 19 election is already underway — mail-in ballots have arrived in mailboxes, and early voting started March 4 and will continue daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., through March 17. See our Election Guide for a full list of early voting locations, explanations of the 13 charter amendments to be voted on citywide and our endorsements



Members of the Woman's Club of Ocoee after the forum on March 6, 2024.


Meet the candidates 

From Robertson, who styles himself as “your neighbor next door” and said he feels "called to serve" in local government, voters learned that he and his wife, married 16 years, have two sons, his grandfather fought in WWII, he and his father are both ministers and he wants to be a "fresh, new voice on the city commission.”


Oliver, a Navy veteran, said in his opening statement that he’s been married for 32 years to his wife Deborah and that they have five sons and six grandchildren. His website, however, states that he has six sons. He has another son with Orlando digital creator Theresa Baker. 


(According to an Orange County charging affidavit obtained by VoxPopuli, Oliver was arrested in 2001 for aggravated battery for pushing Baker, in the presence of their minor child, during an argument about being short on funds for an abortion. Baker was seven and a half weeks pregnant, according to the affidavit, and Oliver said, “I figured your damn ass wasn’t going to have the abortion anyway you fuckin’ hood rat!” It’s unclear if the procedure took place. In an email to VoxPopuli, Oliver — who said he "Bcc'd several other interested parties" on the email exchange — wrote, "The accusing party admitted to making a false statement. Therefore, I was never charged." The case was never prosecuted.  


(Bankruptcy documents from 2015 show that Oliver owed Baker more than $37,000 in unpaid child support. At the time, he was also paying $316 a month to prevent a Mercedes from being sold to pay off creditors. Baker did not respond to a Facebook message about payment of the child support. Oliver said in his email, "All child support has been paid in full. I received refund checks from the office that administrators (sic) child support." Oliver did not say when he paid Baker or provide any documentation to demonstrate the child support had been paid.


A page from the bankruptcy trustee's final report, showing two claims by the Florida Department of Revenue for "T. Baker" in excess of $37,000.


Oliver said his top priorities if re-elected were focusing on the city's roads, which he said are in "dire need of upgrades," increasing funding for training and equipment to the city's police department, and conducting “a true operational audit to see how healthy our city is financially,  especially with the onboarding of a new city manager.”


(Longtime City Manager Robert Frank is retiring in July. Assistant City Manager Craig Shadrix will assume the city manager role at that time.) 


Who’s prepared on April 2? 

Both candidates were asked how they have prepared to be ready to work once the oath of office is administered on April 2. 


Oliver said that he’s stayed current by watching commission meetings. “I see everything that goes on,” he said. “Just because I'm not here doesn't mean I'm not in tune with the commission and what's going on in the commission meetings.” He added that he planned to pick up where he left off before he resigned his seat.


Robertson, who mentioned that Oliver “abandoned” District 4 voters at every opportunity he got, said he was attending city commission and planning and zoning meetings and meeting with city staff  to learn about “projects that are currently underway as well as projects that are coming in the future.” He said although not elected, he’s been “doing a lot of the work of a commissioner,” getting answers from city staff for residents with questions.


What's different this time? 

Voters who complained that Oliver was not responsive when he was in office wanted to know "what would be different this time?” if they re-elected him. Oliver said, “I must apologize” to those who felt he hadn't been responsive to them, but added that he reached out to “probably 90 percent” of the people who contacted him via text and email, even knocking on their doors. 


Another question, given his run for mayor, was whether Oliver was aiming for higher office, using the District 4 seat as a stepping stone to get there. Oliver sought to reassure voters that he loved Ocoee and wanted to stay in Ocoee.


“I have no aspirations for to run for the county. I have no aspirations to run for the state,  no aspirations to run for any federal office,” he said. “My aspirations lie right here. I'm going to work in the city of Ocoee whether I'm an elected official or not until the day I die. I hope that answers the question.” 


“Just because I'm not here doesn't mean I'm not in tune with the commission and what's going on in the commission meetings.”

Family-friendly policies, parks and children’s safety

Beyond matters of preparedness and commitment, the issues that grabbed the most attention were policies for families and safety for the city’s children — on roads, in parks and at schools.


Robertson talked about parks development so that children “have more opportunities for that great outdoor play that we want to make sure that they're having.” He suggested looking into “other mechanisms that we can put in place as a city government that help to promote safety at our local parks.”


Neither candidate provided a definitive answer to the question about where they stood on “leaving green space throughout Ocoee,” not just for specific park spaces but natural, untouched areas. 


Oliver referred back to his strategic plan on his website and talked about removing wildlife before areas were developed to avoid having animals like bears wander into neighborhoods later on. Robertson rhapsodized about nature in his Arden Park community. But neither said what they might want to do to leave areas undisturbed where wildlife could thrive. 


In terms of family-oriented ideas, Oliver said he favored block parties for bringing people together, adding that he hosts a block party annually. The effects ripple out, he explained, as families coming together become communities coming together, which leads to the city coming together. 


“Folks get to meet each other that have not met each other before, and that brings us closer together as a community,” he explained. “If we take that same model and kind of spread it out to other communities, I believe that these communities can come closer together.”


School issues were another way the candidates focused on families. Oliver said the city was in “dire need” of a middle school to alleviate overcrowding.  And regarding school safety, Oliver, who’s seen the active-shooter drills first hand from his time as a substitute teacher, praised the programs already in place for alerting teachers, students and parents. He said with more funding and resources to build on the partnerships the schools already have with the police and fire departments “we should be able to increase safety in our schools.” 


Robertson stressed the importance of monitoring school zones for speeding, an issue recently before the city commission, to ensure drivers aren’t “speeding through those zones and making children more vulnerable to accidents” during the early morning and afternoon hours when they are walking and biking to and from school. 


Both candidates were asked about increasing funding for the police department. Oliver said that he favors “implementing community-based policing programs that build trust and cooperation between law enforcement and our community” as well as boosting funding for training and equipment. He said that as the city grows, for every 1,000 citizens, the police department should be increased by 5 percent. He pointed to impact fees and non-residential taxes to fund that. 


Robertson said committing to a specific number was “arbitrary” and that he favored having a “strong analysis done” to ensure the city has a police department that grows with the city.


Inclusivity and the Music Festival 

The candidates were asked if they would “support inclusivity” if elected and asked for specifics  about what that support would look like. Both said they did, but neither gave many details.


Robertson noted that District 4 is more than 50 percent nonwhite and called attention to the city’s new “Diversity Drives Ocoee” program, available through the Orange County Library, courtesy of the city’s Human Relations Diversity Board (HRDB). (This month’s focus, for Women's History Month, is about gender bias in the workplace.) He said he would continue to support the HRDB.


As the commission liaison to the HRDB, Oliver was an often-polarizing figure. His tenure coincided with one of the HRDB's more tumultuous periods and ended with the city commission restructuring the board after the 2023 election. Nonetheless, Oliver remains a strong advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion and said the city is "on the right track," and needs to “continue to foster a community of inclusiveness, a community of diversity, a community of equity."


Does he support the Music Festival? is a perennial question for Oliver. He was asked when he ran for mayor in 2023, and he was asked again Wednesday night. But he responded patiently that he enjoys the event and has attended seven Music Festivals. “I fully support the Music Festival. But I also have questions about how it's funded, how it, how the money spent and also the transparency of the financing for the music festival,” he said. 


Robertson countered that he remembered “lots of comments and complaints about the Music Festival” when Oliver was commissioner and said, “If my opponent wanted to be so involved in the decisions about the Music Festival, why did he abandon his seat to run for mayor?”


The next time it was his turn to answer, Oliver responded to the “abandonment” issue first. He said, “When I resigned to run for mayor, it was to actually look at the city as a whole, to not abandon the district, but actually to cover the district in a different way. To be able to have more input into how our city is developing as a whole and not just the district.”


“If my opponent wanted to be so involved in the decisions about the Music Festival, why did he abandon his seat to run for mayor?”

Downtown development, property taxes and CRA funding 

Regarding a question about tightening the city budget and reducing property taxes on homeowners, neither candidate touched the budget question. Robertson said, “it’s really important” to reduce residential property taxes and added that the way to do that was by attracting businesses, such as specialized medical manufacturing, to Ocoee. He pointed to Winter Garden as an example of a city that has “a large non-res[idential] tax base, which has helped them to be able to continue to bring property taxes lower.”


Oliver agreed that Ocoee needed to grow the city’s non-residential tax base and mentioned using impact fees from the city’s “bustling warehouse district” to potentially lower millage rates. But he said that absent any kind of over-arching plan for the city’s growth and development, discussions about taxes are just “nice conversations to have.”


“We have to still lay down a strategic plan, a goal, a mission, and a vision. I've never heard of any organization that did not have a mission or vision,” he said. “That is going to drive how we control our taxes. It's going to drive our millage rates down. Those are the things we have to do.”


On a question about expanding the Community Redevelopment Area (CRA), Oliver said he’d had conversations with city staff about expanding the CRA, possibly after it's renewed, to bring in more capital, to "bring in more partners,” like Orlando Health on Colonial Drive, and create live, work, play communities for young professionals. 


“The thing that makes our CRA thrive is the actual partnerships that we foster throughout the community, throughout the businesses in the community,” he said. 


When it comes to downtown development, Robertson assured that “there is a plan in place that we need to continue to execute. We need to finish what we start.” 


Oliver countered that the plan was good but lacked any strategic planning. “We have the ability to do the things that we want to do. We just have to engage it a little differently,” he said. “We had this comprehensive plan in place for a while now. And yet, we're still almost where we were, with the exception of the city hall building.” He added that he’d want to see some projects finished before the city took on any more debt with more bonds.

 

Clark Road traffic

It wouldn’t be an Ocoee candidates forum without a question about traffic on Clark Road. Oliver said he fielded questions on Clark Road daily before he resigned his seat, but felt the current plan was sound.


“Although we had some delays with that project, I believe that we're on track right now to actually alleviate a lot of issues with Clark Road,” he said.  “For one, once they finish with one side of Clark Road, we should be able to sustain traffic on one side of it to be able to pave the other side.”


Robertson said traffic flow would be evaluated and signals adjusted accordingly. He also reminded residents that there were other traffic pressure points in the city — like speeding on Hackney Prairie Road — and working to control speed and congestion issues was a priority throughout Ocoee. 


Wrapping up

In his closing remarks, Oliver thanked Robertson for his “almost scripted responses to the questions,” but otherwise refrained from saying anything other than that he and his opponent had different visions for the city. He positioned himself as the candidate with experience and expertise and transparency in working with the city and said he would focus on jobs creation, economic opportunity, diversity, safe streets and ensuring that the police and fire departments are properly resourced. 


Robertson clapped back that preparation wasn’t a negative. “My answers aren’t scripted, but I have prepared,” he said. He went straight to the point: Re-electing Oliver to his old seat would get voters “more of the same. You'll get more non-responsiveness, more no follow-through” while he offered a “fresh new voice of leadership."


 


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